"To me, science is about how not to be a sucker."
- endnote, page 273
I was asked to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan by a friend who has never steered me wrong before. In general, one should avoid a psychological analysis of the author when reviewing a book. However, as Black Swan is the Kim Kardashian of pop business books, the psychological analysis is unavoidable. The cranky intellectual is an American favorite, but this is too much cranky and too little intellectual. One might hope that there is some psychological in-joke lurking in the background, but I think not.*
Have you seen or read The End of the Affair?** Remember how it starts: "This is a book of hate..." Black Swan is also a book of hate. It is a book of contempt for all of humanity (and he takes on God as well), sometimes singularly and sometimes as a group: He write of only learning from one living person. (p 254) But if one fails to learn from the fool, that is something wrong with you and not with the fool, yes? I remember how impressed I was with the intellectual generosity in Haakonssen's Natural Law and Moral Philosophy, or of the acts of love presented by Dr. Schrader-Frechette in her Science Policy, Ethics and Economic Methodology (Here is a video of her... doesn't she seem like a lovely person? I applied to go sit at her knee and learn to be smart but it didn't work out). Jason Lanier wrote in You Are Not a Gadget that we are surrounded by love (p. 107). Think of Malcolm Gladwell who is, if nothing else, fascinated by and in love with the world.***
In contrast, Taleb writes as if he were fascinated with himself and his own psychology only. Everyone is stupid. I don't know what to make of the several protestations that Taleb doesn't actually hate his readers--"I am a humanist!" Taleb explains while poking out your eye, metaphorically--but I wouldn't want to meet him at a cocktail party in the dark hall behind the cheese dip.
Where the topic is what I know, I know the book to be lacking. Taleb erases Schrader-Frechette and everyone of her ilk from existence. I can tell you that in fact Popper does have a posse, though you would never know it from Taleb. And why not just read Popper rather that Taleb: one will learn more and be angry less. At each point where Taleb claims to be the only person working on a particular issue or the originator of a particular thought, on this you can be guaranteed: He. Is. Not. On the Gaussian distribution, Taleb arguments are so unclearly written (and sometime straight-up wrong) that I don't know whether he has a point or not, but he certainly did not convince me of anything. Factual errors abound in topics used just as metaphors and not even essential to the arguments.
The book is too much junior high school debate, with "they say" and straw men in abundance. Yes, stupid people are stupid, but to address (or refute) the highest intelligence of the system in question, what say you? Where he writes of what I do not know, I have put what he had to say out of my mind because I do not trust him. Which is truly infuriating because if one is going to tell me how far their intelligence exceeds my own I expect them to deliver. Ah well, to become informed about those topics I will read some other book.
Taleb recounts entering the larger world as someone who has been damaged by war and continues in our world as someone who has tangled with cancer. He wobbles between attempting to accept uncertainty and the desire not to be the fool. His main interest, he states over and over, is to never again be the sucker. As such, the book is largely a psychological ministration to himself, and the first half of the book appears to be presented as a psychological ministration to the general public (though at about the 50% point he states that he only means to be speaking to a specialized use of these ideas, p. 298). I must admit that I frequently argue against confirmation bias when I'm suggesting that a person should not be reckless. It is an easy vine to grab hold of, and yet my previous example from Traffic shows how quickly this kind of argument becomes a complete mess in the face of human reality. Such arguments are frequently more pathological than philosophical, and I think that is the case here.
The psychological prescription presented in the book is harmful. Logically predictability actually works very well for most people most of the time (as admitted on page 298, and after all the entire point of a Black Swan is that it is rare). In each stock market crash of the 20th century, she who simply held her investments recovered within 10 years (yes, this includes the great depression). Expecting the unpredictable makes people more insane rather than less. Meanwhile, the great "black swans" are not so great. On 9/11 (the subject of the first quarter of the book), most fliers and most buildings were safe. It isn't not expecting 9/11 that causes the average individual difficulty, it is the insanely overinflated reaction to it. Taleb would agree with that and say that the problem is the reaction to what has already happened, that instead one should be focused on the possibility of some other unknown thing happening next. This is not useful for the public health. It has to be a specialized process for specialized positions: that which creates resilient systems is not the same as that which creates resilient people. Resilient people are created by the ability to refame and reanalyse the reality of their lives. Backwards narration is exactly what you do in psychotherapy. I’m even okay with a certain kind of backward narration in history, in that it creates culture. Backwards narration is to be avoided in an NATSB plane crash analysis surely, but it remains useful to those traumatized by the crash.
Plodding predictability works fairly well in science too. This is fortunate because statistics are misused not just sometimes but the majority of time, and not just in the social sciences but in the hard sciences. The most disappointing part of Taleb's book is where he gets to his great idea: a four quadrant chart with highly theoretical boundaries, only one if which is supposedly outside the realm of statistics. Meanwhile, in the real world, if you pick up any scientific paper, it is almost guaranteed that you can find a statistical error in it with the smallest amount of training (I have been led to engage in this experiment several times over in my master's program in pharmaceutical research). If it weren't for predictability, masses of people would be dieing from falling down buildings and inappropriate medical treatment. Taleb's argument that a Gaussian series cannot capture an extreme is puzzling. Of course Gaussian practice can account for extremes but in order to obtain useful generalities it generally doesn't: it is common practice to remove the furthest outliers from your calculations. Why? Because most of the time they do not matter. The fact that three planes flew into buildings on 9/11 affected the lives of a very small amount of people for a very small amount of time. If you are not one of those people and you ignore 9/11, it is very unlikely that there will be any negative outcome for you (though you might be missing out on the moral obligation to be engaged with your community, if your engagement could serve any useful purpose).
Meanwhile, the focus on the rare is frequently a focus on useless information. For example, every American school child knows what a platypus is even though they will never encounter one. Why do they know this? Because it is the exception to the definition of a mammal and there is some unwritten pedagogical imperative that they must be informed of this one exception. Meanwhile they aren't ever taught that all birds have feathers simply because we said so. We are more willing (and able) to teach a child a bizarre particularity of a classification rule than we are to teach the child about how classification itself works (Note: Without Platonicity, we would be mute.). Or something useful to the lives most of them will actually live, which will involve basic mathematics and literacy rather than higher scientific philosophy.****
Part of where Taleb goes astray in his psychological prescription is that he does not allow for a range of personalities which are more or less stupid, and not only that but variable in their wants and desires at their level of stupidity. For him, there are only the stupid (everyone else) and the not stupid (him). Furthermore, stupidity is only about whether or not you have been taken advantage of or played for the fool, not whether you have lived your life as you wish. The author of Predictably Irrational, along with the authors of Freakenomics, show (much more usefully to the average reader) some of the same things as Taleb, but with respect for humanity and respect for the methods of their professions. I have not read The Drunkard's Walk but I am told that it specifically is a good replacement for Taleb. These authors show not that science has made THEM smart, but how science can make YOU smart, and for the ends you desire.
I nonetheless understand that these books do not make the points that Taleb does and that very few people are going to slog through Schrader-Frechette when she writes about how public policy should deal with the unknown. In between all the tangents, unlikely philosophy and counter-productive psychology, Taleb would like to shine a spotlight for the general public on specific and meaningful criticisms of how technical economics is done. Taleb has convinced me that a good popular book on that topic would be a good idea. The most disappointing thing of all about Black Swan is that it is not that book.
*Those who know me will laugh because I am frequently and properly accused of being more like Taleb and less like those I claim to admire. I have attempted to make a rule to only write positive things on the internet, but this is a very dark book and has well earned the response.
**I couldn't find anything to link to that was not a spoiler. If you haven't seen the Ralph Fiennes version, please do but don't even read the DVD case before watching it.
***Gladwell reports being influenced by Taleb in this bleak and heart-breaking statement: "We associate the willingness to risk great failure—and the ability to climb back from catastrophe—with courage. But in this we are wrong. That is the lesson of Nassim Taleb."
****I only somewhat believe this. I don't expect 100% scientific literacy, but a scientifically ignorant ruling class is disastrous, and currently observable. On the other hand, scientists have more than earned the disdain apportioned them for being too much like Taleb and, as I alluded to above, too dishonest in their work.
Another review I luv, at Lotsa 'Splainin' 2 Do.